The cares of a caretaker

June 03,2018

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President Mamnoon Hussain administering the oath of office to Justice (R) Nasir-ul-Mulk as Caretaker Prime Minister at the Aiwan-e-Sadr. Former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is also present.

In 2013, the Supreme Court gave a judgment in a case relating to the powers of a caretaker government. It stated that: “major policy decisions and major appointments should be left to elected representatives”. Under normal circumstances, this would be the right course of action. But given where Pakistan stands today, the caretaker government must take a more active role while staying compliant with the SC ruling. Despite some years of economic growth in many areas, the performance of key institutions of the state and the quality of governance has been declining. We continue to face multiple and repeated crises. A major reason for this is the absence of a national consensus on key challenges and the way forward.

Political governments have not been able to effectively articulate the challenges or develop a consensus. It is shameful that there has been no thoughtful debate in our national or provincial assemblies for decades. The electronic media has also not played its role. We keep getting stuck in point-scoring and blame games. We haven’t fully internalised in our body politic and among citizens that for Pakistan to prosper there needs to be a national consensus on issues that pose an existential threat to the country. It is in this area that the caretaker government could play an ‘activist role’. The interim PM can be bold, as he is not constrained by any pressure from the electorate or the establishment.

In its first month in office, the caretaker government should: (i) hold a programme of nationwide consultations on each issue (ii) establish, for each key challenge, teams of independent experts to review past recommendations and the state of play (iii) based on the first two functions, prepare a comprehensive report – the national agenda for reforms – highlighting the risks and options for reforms.

In its second month, the government should embark on an aggressive public awareness programme, using the media to disseminate the reforms agenda report. Perhaps, the government could buy several hours every day on primetime TV to disseminate the document. The aim is to provide the incoming federal and provincial governments a document that could be the basis for achieving a consensus on national and provincial reforms. It would also energise the civil society and citizens to put pressure on the newly-elected governments to take action. So, what are the key challenges that should be covered in this exercise?

The most important existential threat on which a national consensus is needed is the galloping population. There are already too many people who rely on the available natural resources. Clean water and air are becoming scarce by the day. Without action, our population will be 300 million by the time Pakistan is 100 years old. Provinces will fight provinces for dwindling resources, especially water. Neighbours will fight neighbours for cramped urban spaces. Diseases will become rampant. The second threat involves the dwindling water resources. Without losing more time, Pakistan needs a national consensus on efforts to conserve water; improve water use and agricultural practices; eliminate the cultivation of water-intensive crops (ie, sugarcane); and build storages. The recently approved National Water Policy is a good start. But the policy requires more concrete action. The third threat that needs concerted and urgent action is the rising intolerance in our society and the continued support for non-state actors. Pakistan’s global isolation is increasing and our citizens are viewed with suspicion when travelling overseas.

The fourth threat – and arguably the main reason for Pakistan’s frequent macroeconomic crisis – is that Pakistan is not generating enough resources to engender growth, reduce public debt to reasonable levels, and provide its citizens with quality education, health and clean water. Citizens are disenchanted by the state. Governments are notoriously wasteful. The present NFC design is flawed – it has left the federal government bankrupt and the provinces have not been responsible in the use of the higher level of transfers. Pakistan needs a progressive, customer-friendly and modern tax system. There need to be mechanisms to ensure that expenditures are better prioritised and waste is reduced. There needs to be a new NFC.

The fifth area is strengthening democracy. Citizens are losing faith in the system. Sadly, political parties and politicians are held in very low esteem – largely because of their own doings. We need to have an election system, which ensures that ordinary people who have a passion for public service can contest elections rather than those who are rich and corrupt.

We need mechanisms to ensure that legislators take assemblies seriously. Like many countries, we need to explore the option of introducing some form of proportional representation. We need an election commission that has the teeth and capacity to enforce election laws in a timely manner. One idea the caretaker government should facilitate is to have live issue-oriented debates among leaders of main political parties. The sixth priority should be reforms of state enterprises to stop their massive losses from leaving Pakistan bankrupt. Those enterprises, which have no credible reason to be state-owned, should be immediately closed or privatised. For those enterprises that need to be state-owned in the national interest, reforms need to focus on improving their efficiency and holding their management accountable for performance. The seventh priority is rebuilding civil institutions to make them meritocratic, performance-driven and customer-friendly. Pakistan had one of the ‘global best’ civil bureaucracies 50 years back. Now, these bureaucracies are among the worst. Corruption and incompetence is deeply embedded in our institutions.

The eighth priority is establishing credible internal and external accountability mechanisms to hold public officials accountable. The current policies and Gestapo-like operating style of NAB are putting a damper on civil servants taking decisions. Its independence and capacity for investigating and prosecuting white-collar crime needs to be strengthened. Finally, the judicial system needs fundamental reforms. The lower judiciary is simply not working for the people.

The list is long. But these actions are long overdue. Persistent neglect is eating away at Pakistan’s foundations. The caretaker government can play a crucial role in overcoming the inertia. By taking on the tasks mentioned above, it can generate public pressure on newly-elected governments to reach a consensus on a national agenda that can put Pakistan on the road to prosperity and stability. The caretaker prime minister will fail Pakistan if he takes a backseat, adopts a minimalist role and only enjoys the perks of the office.

The writer is a former adviser to the World Bank.


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